Club v Country? Which One Comes First?

Every year the club v country row reignites, particularly when there are international friendlies as England had the other week. Fans and members of the press regularly sympathise with managers having to loan out their top players for five days, for what is essentially a learning expedition.

Increasingly we are seeing more and more Premier League players dropping out of squads with minor illnesses and injuries. Only to play for their club days later.

It is obvious an international manager would want access to that country’s best players but injuries sustained on international duty are so often the cause of bigger issues to their club. So are managers such as Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini wrong to forge a sick note in order to safeguard their star men? And what exactly can be done to halt this increasing trend?

Stuart Pearce’s England Under-21s were badly affected with 11 players being withdrawn from their squad to face Italy. Although the former England defender put this down to the number of games played in the Premier League stating: “The amount of games in England is a problem to us.” Concluding that: “We have to get a balance between club and country.”

He has a point; with last season’s top four teams playing an average of six games each in all competitions during the month of February. Each club plays four games in the tightest Premier League race in years, so is it any wonder these clubs want to protect their first team players? Not forgetting that Arsenal have the Carling Cup final against Birmingham City four days after their league match against Stoke City.

Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie of Arsenal; Peter Crouch of Tottenham Hotspur; Gabriel Agbonlahor of Aston Villa and Ben Foster of Birmingham City were all players unavailable for their countries but able to play for their club within the next seven days. They are merely a few of many.

In England these withdrawals are sometimes cited as the reason for the country’s lack of international success with many England managers over the years complaining about the lack of understanding and support from club bosses. But it is hard to feel sorry for the FA when it is the clubs that are paying these stars’ wages and often end up with injuries to key players, with many spending months in recovery before making another appearance for their club.

It is natural that managers may fret about the number of injuries players collect while on international duty; in the four years following 2002, 5 different players broke bones in their feet while playing for England. This is nothing new, Bryan Robson was a big miss for England in the 1986 World Cup after dislocating his shoulder in a warm up game. The most recent and notable injury to an Englishman sustained while away with his country would be Dean Ashton; after breaking his ankle in 2006 he missed the whole of the season for his club West Ham United. And although he did return for his club a year and a half later, he was never the same player and retired at the age of 26. As it stands West Ham are still awaiting their financial compensation from the FA regarding the incident.

This is not a sequence of events confined to England; Djibril Cisse of France, Phillipe Senderos of Switzerland, Thomas Vermaelen of Belgium and Stuart Holden of the USA have all returned to their clubs will long-term injuries following international duty.

Of course you cannot wrap the players in cotton wool but when it comes to a choice between club and country, a way needs to be found for the two to work in unison. Otherwise one will have to come first and who knows which one that will be?